One can’t help but think of “Rosemary’s Baby” when watching the wickedly effective and disturbing psychological horror film “False Positive,” with Ilana Glazer’s Lucy as a kind of cinematic descendant of Mia Farrow’s Rosemary from the 1968 classic.
Like Rosemary, Lucy is thrilled she’s pregnant and grateful for the support of a handsome if controlling husband — and like Rosemary, Lucy begins to feel uneasy and suspicious as people around her act strangely and it seems as if something is not quite right, not at all. (Sidebar: Lucy’s husband is named Adrian, the same name as the demon child in “Rosemary’s Baby.”) Is Lucy suffering from a serious case of “mommy brain,” or is something truly nefarious afoot?
Ilana Glazer, who co-wrote the script for “False Positive” with director John Lee, is a world away from the screwball comedy of “Broad City” (where Lee often directed episodes) and she delivers a commanding and layered performance as Lucy, a New York marketing exec who has been trying to get pregnant for two years with her doctor husband (a perfectly Justin Theroux). Adrian convinces Lucy they should make an appointment at the cutting-edge reproductive center helmed by his medical school professor, Dr. John Hindle (Pierce Brosnan), whose revolutionary insemination methods have resulted in dozens of pregnancies in families that had nearly given up hope.
Greeted at the entrance by the coolly efficient, ever-smiling Nurse Dawn (Gretchen Mol), who’s always there to hand you a bottle of water or a reassuring pat on the shoulder, Lucy and Adrian are immediately impressed by the clinic — but looking through the lens of the brilliant cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (“Midsommar,” “Hereditary”), we find something unsettling about the antiseptically perfect design of the place.
Handsome, smooth, reassuring and clearly under the impression he knows much more about a woman’s body than any woman, Dr. Hindle is supremely confident Lucy will be pregnant — and he’s not wrong. After enduring painful and invasive treatment, Lucy is indeed with child. “We’re pregnant!” exclaims Adrian, as if he has endured as much as Lucy. (We see Lucy experience the same kind of casual male discrimination at the office, where it’s a given that every day at lunch time, Lucy will take everyone’s orders.)
The ultrasound shows Lucy is pregnant with healthy, robust male twins, and a smaller, female singlet. Dr. Hindle advises “selective reduction” for the greater good, and while both he and Adrian advise keeping the boys, Lucy says she’ll have the baby girl and name her Wendy. (This is not the last reference to “Peter Pan” that will surface as the story develops.) As the months go by, Lucy begins to suspect Adrian and Dr. Hindle are hiding something from her; for one thing, they’re a lot chummier than Adrian ever let on. She also becomes friends with a younger pregnant mom named Corgan (Sophia Bush), who lends a sympathetic ear as Lucy voices her suspicions but keeps chalking it up to “mommy brain,” which Corgan assures Lucy is a very real thing. You just go a little bonkers when you’re pregnant!
Lucy infuriates Adrian and Dr. Hindle when she says she’s going to hire an Afrocentric midwife (Zainab Jah), who rejects traditional medicine, for the delivery. (In one of the many sly bits of social commentary in the film, the generally sympathetic and helpful midwife chastises Lucy and says she’s not some sort of “magical Negro.”) As the delivery date approaches, Lucy experiences horrifying dreams — or maybe they’re hallucinations — and has disturbing encounters with Corgan and that infuriatingly upbeat Nurse Dawn.
With each meticulously framed shot and an appropriately old-school horror movie score ramping up the tension, “False Positive” does a slow build to a deeply twisted and grotesque and memorable climax that makes Lucy’s nightmares seem like sweet dreams by comparison. With Ilana Glazer leading an outstanding cast, “False Positive” is not a movie you can easily shake off in a day or two. Or three.